The lone punching bag in the NL East has the division’s best player, as the Washington Nationals are in rebuilding mode. They got their World Series rings and went all out to do it, but consistent contention was always going to be challenging with the state of the farm system. Going for a championship comes at a cost, both financially and with the prospects that are used to acquire major league pieces.
En route to losing 97 games last season, the Nationals traded Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, Kyle Schwarber and Daniel Hudson. Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray were the focal points of that Turner/Scherzer deal with the Dodgers, and they’ll have a chance to really get their MLB careers started with a team that has extremely low expectations. Teams willing to absorb the financial cost of signing rental free agents have had great success spinning those players for prospects at the trade deadline, which is what the Nationals will look to do with Nelson Cruz, Cesar Hernandez, Steve Cishek, Sean Doolittle and Tyler Clippard. It’s important to recognize these situations, as the Nationals we see now will look a lot different by August.
Punting a season with an elite talent such as Juan Soto is never easy. It might be essential, though. Soto is earning $17.1 million in his arbitration season. He is a Super Two player, so he has a fourth year of arbitration in 2024, but we are looking at the first $450 million contract in MLB history. Mike Trout signed a 12-year, $426.5 million deal with his most recent extension. Soto will get more money than that.
The 23-year-old posted his best full-season wRC + at 163 in 2021, meaning he was 63% better than league average. Over the last two seasons, Soto has walked 186 times against 121 strikeouts, which is a remarkable achievement in today’s game. He slashed .313/.465/.534, which was a bit of a disappointment, as crazy as that is to say. Soto hit 13 homers in 47 games in 2020 and posted a 201 wRC + , so he was twice as good as a league-average player. He didn’t follow up that short season with the same power, which leads me to believe it shows up this season.
Of course, teams probably won’t pitch to him much. To start the year, Soto will be protected in the lineup by Cruz and another impending free agent in Josh Bell, but who knows what happens at the deadline. Cruz is still hitting tanks at 41 years old (he hit 32 last year). He’s hit at least 32 homers in every full season since 2014, but 32 was his lowest output since 2013. He hit 16 homers in 53 games in 2020.
Last season marked Cruz’s first with a SLG under .500 since 2012. It wasn’t from a lack of contact quality or barreled balls. I don’t see any deterioration of skills and he hit 13 homers in 55 games with the Rays despite the poor hitting conditions at Tropicana Field. Nationals Park is a launching pad in the summer months, so I’d expect Cruz to do his thing.